What can you say about Radiohead’s latest release ‘Kid A’? Despite the fact that there are no singles, no videos, and the band has performed few interviews and/or television appearances in recent months, the album hit number 1 in its first week on the market. In fact, the only promotion consisted of 30 second internet clips.
An explanation of this approach (one that likely gave the record executives at EMI nervous fits) is in order. Radiohead’s previous release, ‘O.K. Computer’, as far as many critics were concerned, marked a revival of creative rock in an otherwise dull period in the genre. Seemingly overnight Radiohead became the most hyped rock band in the world. Media and critics alike thrusted upon them the title ’saviors of rock’ and the leading band members were quickly vaulted into celebrity status. However, instead of basking in triumph, this period marked a very uneasy time for Radiohead. Their video tour documentary ‘Meeting People Is Easy’ says a lot about the band’s mentality during this period. In the video they adamantly denied the preconception that they are a guitar band, and seemed uneasy with their role in shaping rock history. The documentary shows their international touring schedule becoming a nightmare of methodically jumping from city to city and interview to interview. Even worse for Radiohead, the now large stadium venues crushed any intimacy that the band had with its audience.
’Kid A’ in some ways represents the band’s response to all of this. The album defies rock traditions: standard verse/chorus formation is all but forgotten; many of the songs don’t even feature guitars at all; others have no drums. Has all typical rock melody and style become an embarrassment to Radiohead? It would seem so. And in a related development, the band also has recently announced that they will be touring North America next year under a large pavilion tent! (check the official web-site for details) Certainly it would seem that Radiohead just wanted to do things as differently as possible in order to avoid the chaotic lifestyle that followed ‘O.K. Computer’. Fortunately due to the enormous success of that album, Radiohead were given complete liberty in their next album’s creation, including free reign on timing. The band was also finally given a year off after non-stop touring, studio, and interviews since the early 90’s when they first hit it big. This freedom and space gave Radiohead time to reflect on themselves and their wishes for the future of the band.
The release of ‘Kid A’ reflects this period and marks a new beginning for Radiohead. They now had to go about their creative process in a new manner - learning the studio equipment in new ways, experimenting with new instruments, sounds, and song structures. Ed O’Brien (guitarist /singer) in his online dairy has written about their approach to recording in the studio. He discusses how the band had to throw away their preconceptions about recording an album, including all the methods that worked for them before, because they knew they would never yield new results. The challenge for Radiohead being essentially to start over again, and to do it well.
When first listening to the album it is important that you hear it as a complete work, start to finish. Some songs flow immediately into others (reminiscent of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’) and your impressions of them are directly affected by the preceding song. The album just doesn’t seem to have the same emotional effect when the songs are heard in isolation. It is difficult to describe the impression that the album makes on the listener and will, in all probability, effect each person differently. To use a clich�, the album represents an expression of inexpressible feelings. The music seems to stimulate the sub-conscious mind and, in the end, leaves the listener feeling emotionally exhausted. But this is just as true lyrically as it is musically. Thom Yorke (singer/guitar/piano/song writer) has said that some of the lyrics on the album were literally pulled out of a hat. During the period after ‘O.K. Computer’ Thom wrote down various verses and thoughts which he couldn’t organize into a whole, he then cut them up randomly, yanked them out of a hat and sang them during jam sessions. This apparently produced some great results. However it is impossible to find any objective meaning within them, they are just subconscious notions which sound interesting together and as a result create a bizarre effect on the listener.
Musically there are many highlights and memorable moments on the album. In fact one of the great aspects of the work is the diversity that is found between each of the songs. Especially to note is the 9 piece brass band on ‘The National Anthem’ which is reminiscent of a traffic jam in downtown New York City; the serene and innovative string section in ‘How to Disappear’ (composed by Jonny Greenwood the ‘guitarist’ in the band); the bizarre time signature(s) in the jazzy yet haunting ‘In Limbo’; and the break beats and layered vocals on ‘Idiotec’. There are many other great moments on the album which are worth mentioning but perhaps would destroy the excitement of discovering them for yourself. If nothing else ‘Kid A’ is a very interesting listening experience, it may be a challenge at first, but should grow more satisfying with repeated listenings.
Note: ‘Kid A’ will sound great on your hifi system! The opening keyboard sound in the first few seconds will quickly convince you of that, and from there on the excellent production becomes even more apparent.
Also, in case you haven’t heard, there is a hidden booklet underneath the cd tray, a bonus to compliment the already fascinating sleeve art.
Jon & Will King